“Take time to be quiet.” – Zig Ziglar
Annually, the short days and long nights of this time of year hit me hard. While I’m almost always up before the sun, it’s a blow to have it still be pitch black as I roll up my yoga mat after my morning practice. Something about the natural rhythms of my body changes with the added darkness. While most of the year I’m awake before my alarm goes off, lately I’m being jolted awake from a dead sleep by its loud ringing.
Even more challenging for me are the nights. Mentally I feel myself curling up and dreaming about climbing into bed once it’s dark. And when it’s getting dark at 4:30 or 5:00, that makes for a very short day. In short, this time of year makes me wish I were at least part bear. If I were, my instinct to hibernate would make a little more sense!
That said, there is something to be said for slowing down. For resting. And for being quiet. While I may be struggling to keep my eyes open many late afternoons, something is going on deep within me. Dreams are incubating in the darkness. Ideas are gestating and taking root. Pieces of plans are quietly coming together.
The tone and pace of this time of year and the way I respond to it – body, mind and spirit – brings to mind the quiet act of contemplation. When we practice contemplation, it can look like we are not doing anything. What can be easy to miss is how intentional we are being about doing very little or nothing at all. We are breathing mindfully. We are re-focusing our awareness (over and over sometimes) on the present moment. We are learning to pay attention to the nuances of even the tiniest experience – how it feels to sit on the floor, to press our palms together, to bow our head.
We practice contemplation knowing that we will feel rested and restored when we stand up to rejoin the day. But there is more (much more!) going on than that. When we take time to be quiet, things shift within us at a very deep level. Our need to control softens and we become more receptive to what is. In the quiet, we slow down. We become more mindful about our actions and much less reactive. As we step off the treadmill of our days, even for just a few minutes at a time, we feel more available to entertain new ideas or more willing to part ways with old ones.
We may not see the fruits of these shifts for weeks or months. In truth, we may not even be able to sense them coming. But as we get more and more comfortable with quiet and stillness, this does not matter. We trust that what feels like rest is creating change as effective (or even more effective) as the change created by activity and motion. The change that comes from stillness is change that will last. It is change that will carry us in directions we might never have considered as we were spinning wildly through our days. It is change that comes from our souls.
Contemplative practices are slowly catching on in our hectic world. They have many names. Yoga, itself is a contemplative practice. In the end, all of yoga’s movement is designed to help us learn to hold still – inside and out. Even as we’re moving our body on our mat, we are training our mind to still itself, to focus rather than to wander willy-nilly after each fleeting thought. At the end of our practice while lying in savasana or sitting in meditation, we are still, both mentally and physically. It is in this stillness that, on a good day, we catch a glimpse of our spirit.
Yoga, however is far from the only such practice. You can barely read the paper or open a magazine without confronting the benefits of meditation. It is now being recommended by doctors and therapists as a way to heal almost any kind of ailment imaginable. Churches in my town are offering intentional mindfulness practices such as centering prayer and spiritual direction. My daughter’s crew coach is teaching her rowers a practice she calls “mind-clearing” that sounds an awful lot like the inner work that I do on my mat each day.
Have no fear, though. You don’t have to look for a meditation teacher or join a church (or a crew team) or buy a yoga class card in order to dip your toe in the contemplative pool. People find rich, quiet moments hiking, rock climbing and running. Or knitting, cooking and gardening. My husband finds it fly fishing. The key is to settle in to what you’re doing wholly. To still the mind so that what you are doing is all that you’re doing. When you notice that your mind has wandered off into plan-making or daydreaming or remembering, simply take a deep breath and refocus on whatever it is that you’re doing. Do this, and you’re practicing quiet contemplation.
Over the years, my yoga practice has created changes in me that I never could have imagined, let alone figured out how to achieve. I’ve come to fully trust the quiet time I spend on my yoga mat to yield much more than better yoga postures. Similarly, I am beginning to trust this time of year to be rich not only for its rest and rejuvenation. I trust that as the light returns to the days and my energy picks up again, ideas and dreams will unfurl in my life thanks to the nurturing they received in this slow, quiet, darkness.